Law society urged to `clear the air'

"When they (law society staff) want to bury something, they really bury something," said one bencher, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're the experts."

The Toronto Star
July 17, 2004

Law society urged to ‘clear the air’
Cheating probe held in near secret. Elected governors want information.
Tracey Tyler

An investigation into alleged cheating by bar admission students "is hanging out there like dirty laundry" and the Law Society of Upper Canada needs to "clear the air," says a member of the legal profession's governing body.

Alan Silverstein, a law society bencher, is calling for a special meeting so the profession's 48 elected governors can hear details about the investigation, which continued in near secrecy for more than two weeks before ending July 9.

"I hate to say this, but we're lawyers and we're supposed to have truth prevail," he said yesterday. "I think we need to get all the facts. I think we have to know more.

"The more you keep things under wraps, the more it just looks bad."

Thirteen students had been under investigation since June 23 for allegedly cheating on the bar admission course by copying and sharing work through e-mails. Law society investigators told students the probe could take eight months to a year to complete, which would have delayed their calls to the bar.

The investigation came to an end last Friday, however, after a meeting between three senior law society officials and its chief executive officer, Malcolm Heins. The students — graduates of Osgoode Hall Law School starting careers at prestigious law firms — were advised no action would be taken. One was called to the bar in Ottawa this week and the rest will be admitted in ceremonies in Toronto next week.

Meanwhile, investigators who interviewed students filed an interim report last Friday, saying more investigation was needed to sort out "fact" from "fiction" in some accounts.

After the probe wrapped up, the law society's senior discipline counsel said Heins insisted "no one provide any information" about the investigation to other law society employees or benchers.

Publicly, some benchers said yesterday they didn't mind being kept in the dark. Benchers — lawyers and lay people charged with running the legal profession in the public interest — are supposed to focus on policy issues and not "micromanage" the law society's operations, they said.

But privately, many were furious. "When they (law society staff) want to bury something, they really bury something," said one bencher, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They're the experts."

Bencher Paul Copeland, a Toronto criminal lawyer, said he thinks it would have been inappropriate to know about the investigation while it was taking place. However, "I would, at the end of the day, like to know there was an investigation," he said, adding he would also like to know "why it was stopped."

A meeting should be set up next week, Silverstein said. While benchers don't normally meet during the summer, law society treasurer Frank Marrocco has the power to convene a special convocation. Marrocco did not return the Star's calls.

"I think any issue like this has to be explored as soon as possible, if only to put our minds at ease nothing is going on," Silverstein said. "We're also dealing with a governing body that has a public persona and it's out there hanging like dirty laundry.

"I really believe that leaving it dangling out there is the worst thing for any organization and the worst thing for the public. Unfortunately, the law society's been down this road before."

In 1998, 28 students who failed the bar admission course were still allowed to become lawyers. It was a law society response to concerns that a disproportionate number of visible minorities were failing the course.

The most recent investigation was triggered by an anonymous letter to the law society. The letter also named 42 students involved in distributing indexes, to assist students in locating answers quickly for an "open book" examination. The law society decided not to proceed with an investigation into their activities because the students were told they could bring anything except electronic devices to the exam room, a source told the Star.

Instead, it focused on 13 students who allegedly swapped — electronically — legal documents they were supposed to draft independently, including notices of motion, sample real-estate offers and opinion letters. One student who sent an e-mail with the greeting "Here is the edited masterpiece" told investigators she didn't know why she said that, suggesting it may have been "a joke."

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